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JOURNALISM: Out Of My League: Flying High With The Western Mustangs Cheerleaders [Download .doc version]

Out Of My League: Flying High With The Western Mustangs Cheerleaders
Jeffrey Reed
As Published By The Londoner November 29, 2011

The Yates Cup, since 1898 awarded to the top Ontario university football team, is the oldest football trophy in existence. On November 12, I suited up with the University of Western Ontario Mustangs cheerleading squad at the 104th Yates Cup at TD Waterhouse Stadium.

Here I was, on national TV, in uniform with the 25-time national champion Mustangs cheerleading squad - a dynasty - and performing in front of 6,500 fans. This Houdini act - a 49-year-old cheerleader in official purple attire, megaphone in hand - was no stunt. I wasn't streaking. I wasn't wearing a rainbow wig and waving a John 3:16 sign.

In fact, the night before the Yates Cup, I practiced with the Mustangs at their headquarters, Power Cheer Gym. This old warehouse is a cheer cave - a cluttered, dimly-lit gymnasium housing an endless amount of championship banners and trophies.

Mustangs coach David-Lee Tracey, 52, is known simply as "Trace," or "Coach Trace," a post he has held since 1985 after cheering at Western. He drives a pickup truck - complete with steer horns - and wears cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. His cool vibe and success have made him a cheerleading guru.

At Western, cheerleading is serious business. This weekend, they'll shoot for a 26th Canadian title at the 27th Annual University and Open National Cheerleading Championships.

So, imagine the gasps when I almost dropped cheerleader Karly Hoar while practicing the Double Base - one of two moves I was to participate in during the Yates Cup. The Double Base involves three male cheerleaders who surround a female teammate, lift her on their hands, toss her in the air then catch her before she meets the pavement.

Trace calls Hoar "the best female cheerleader tumbler in Canada." Imagine my horror when I let this prized athlete slip out of my arms during the Double Base dismount.

Jeffrey Reed cheers with the Western Mustangs Jeffrey Reed cheers with the Western Mustangs.
Photo: Don Martel, Special to The Londoner

The morning of the Yates Cup, I felt sick to my stomach when I drove onto the UWO campus. My first stop was the cheerleaders' tailgate party. The 36-member squad, led by captain Mike Wilson, dined on traditional tailgate fare, but I was too nervous to eat.

I asked Wilson if there is a stigma on campus painting cheerleading as a fringe, feminine sport. "Here at Western, we do a good job at smashing that stereotype. Once (naysayers) see what you do, you gain their respect. They're kissing your butt to hang out with the girls," said Wilson.

Suiting up with the squad, I could hear music and yelling coming from the football locker room as the Mustangs prepared for the McMaster Marauders. During warmup, I once again screwed up the Double Base, this time almost dropping Brooklyn Pawlik. Another move I was participating in was the Basket Toss, which called for me to stand in front of a female cheerleader, flip her in the air and then get the hell out of the way before getting kicked in the face. I mistakenly jumped away when I was supposed to catch Pawlik.

At game time, Nakema McManamna, who Trace calls "the hardest working member of my team," made sure I wasn't going to be a tourist while representing her squad. "Listen, I know we have cute little figures, but when you're cheering, look at the crowd. Smile and cheer!" Fearing her, I put on my game face.

Just before we took the field for player introductions, I had to use the men's room. The washroom door in the change room was locked, and the rest of the squad was already on the sidelines. I ran to the public washroom, drawing a tongue lashing from Trace.

Standing at the washroom stall, taking care of business, Larry Haylor - retired Mustangs' head coach and winningest coach in Canadian university football history - saddled up beside me. I've interviewed Larry many times over the years, but he didn't recognize me.

"Go Mustangs!" said Haylor. "You guys are worth 10 points for us today." Classic. Today, I was a cheerleader

There's an incredible buzz when you're on a football field during player introductions. We lined up in two rows as the Mustangs rushed out of their dressing room and under the large inflatable W. We then lined up at midfield as the players were introduced. What a unique rush, watching these brutes rush past me.

I was on the field for the first quarter of the Yates Cup, which ended with the Mustangs leading 3-0. Fan reaction ranged from laughter to absolute disbelief, mouths agape and finger pointing. The student grandstand was an adventure - in particular, the section where hundreds of vociferous McMaster students used language that would make a drunken sailor blush.

"We're headed into enemy territory," said Trace as the squad jogged over to within a few yards of the McMaster fans. "Make sure he is protected," said Trace to the rest of the cheerleaders who would shield me from abuse. I yelled through my megaphone, egging on the McMaster supporters. The cheerleaders did, too, pulling off some amazing high-flying stunts in the faces of the enemy. This was cheer war.

I did well with my lifts and catches during the Double Base and Basket Toss. But there wasn't much to cheer about. McMaster clobbered the Mustangs 41-19, and went on to win their first Vanier Cup national title in double overtime with a 41-38 victory over the powerhouse Laval Rouge et Or.

Something very cool happened during the second quarter of the Yates Cup. Now in my civvies after a quick change, the cheer team did not recognize me. I spotted cheerleader Alannah Bruns and waved. It took her about 30 seconds before she recognized me. Word spread, and the entire team rushed over and encircled me, happy about the reunion. This was a special moment.

The Western Mustangs cheerleaders are some of the most skilled athletes I've ever had the pleasure of seeing up close and personal. For one quarter at the Yates Cup, I was proud to be one of them.



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